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If you can’t handle 1.5 million words of Proust, try ‘Swann in Love’

The first volume of ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ turns 100 this year. A new translation of its central tale offers a taste of Proust’s (much) larger masterwork.

7 min

This year the world has honored the centenary of two masterpieces of modern literature, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” But this fall also marks two other important anniversaries: the publication on Sept. 19, 1922, of “Swann’s Way,” the first volume of C.K. Scott Moncrieff’s pioneering translation of Marcel Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” followed, two months later, by the death of Proust himself at age 51 on Nov. 18.

Many believe that “In Search of Lost Time” — a more accurate translation of the book’s title than Scott Moncrieff’s Shakespearean “Remembrance of Things Past” — is the 20th century’s greatest novel. Others have found it to be almost unreadable because of its length (1.5 million words), its seemingly endless serpentine sentences, and its author’s microscopic attention to the nuances of societal relationships and the subtleties of the human heart.

T.S. Eliot wrote of waste and woe. His private life provided material.

Years ago, I took a college French course in Proust during which I slowly worked my way through the entire three-volume Pléiade edition. In retrospect, I don’t seem to have done much else that spring. But as with Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” — another long novel about families and the passage of time — I came to feel that its characters were more real than the actual people around me. You don’t so much read “In Search of Lost Time ” as live in it.

In particular, I remember finishing the famous section “Swann in Love” (from “Swann’s Way”) in Oberlin College’s Carnegie Library just as the lights were being turned off in the main reading room. I walked back to my dorm in a daze, Charles Swann’s words ringing in my ears: “To think that I wasted years of my life, that I wanted to die, that I had my greatest love, for a woman to whom I wasn’t attracted, who wasn’t my type.”

Michael Dirda: On Reading Proust

This past week, I reread “Swann in Love” in a new translation by Lucy Raitz, advertised by Pushkin Press as a “stand-alone novella” and the “perfect introduction to Proust.” In many ways, both those claims are accurate: All the rest of Proust’s magnum opus focuses on its narrator’s childhood, friendships, affairs of the heart and intermittent moments of transcendent happiness, before he arrives at the discovery of his vocation — which is nothing less than to write the book we have been reading, to redeem through art all the wasted years of a dilettantish life.

Nevertheless, “Swann in Love” isn’t quite as excisable as it might seem. Some of its characters were already introduced in “Combray,” the opening section of the novel, which describes the narrator’s family and early life. Moreover, all its men and women will continue to appear throughout the book, as the passing years reveal deeper layers to the vulgar salon hostess Madame Verdurin, Swann’s friend the Baron de Charlus, the alluring Odette and even an unnamed artist who turns out to have been the young Elstir, later the greatest painter of his generation. Above all, though, Swann’s obsession with Odette provides the template for all the subsequent love affairs in the book. In other words, this Pushkin hardcover would have benefited from a contextual introduction and at least a brief afterword to make clear that this “novella” should really end with the words “To be continued.”

Here, though, is how it begins.

One evening, Charles Swann, a wealthy, charming man about town and an habitue of the highest ranks of society, is introduced to Odette de Crécy at a theater by a friend who quietly suggests that he might have a good time with her. The middle-aged Swann has already enjoyed many affairs, with women of all classes, and at first feels relatively indifferent to Odette. Though she has large, beautiful eyes, “her profile was too sharp, her skin too delicate, her cheekbones too high, her features too drawn.” What’s more, Swann, an aesthete and authority on Vermeer, finds her unintelligent. Nonetheless, Odette seems utterly taken with him, and, as Proust notes, “feeling that one already possesses the heart of a woman can be enough to make one fall in love.”

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Because Odette spends her evenings at Madame Verdurin’s, Swann stoically endures the company of that supercilious social climber and her sycophantic hangers-on. There one night he hears a violin and piano sonata by a composer named Vinteuil and is transfixed by a “little phrase” of five notes, two repeated. This music becomes the anthem of his growing love for Odette (as well as one of the leitmotifs of the entire novel).

That love reaches its initial peak one evening when Swann visits the Verdurins and learns that Odette has already left but may be stopping for a cup of chocolate at Prévost’s restaurant. He rushes there — no Odette. Overwhelmed by a need to see her, he searches in other cafes and restaurants, his despair increasing. Then, just as he is about to give up, he almost literally bumps into her outside the Maison Dorée, where Odette tells him she’s just had supper. He drives her home in his carriage, en route shyly asks to adjust the disarranged orchids at her bodice, and that night they make love for the first time.

Before long, the once-blase Swann experiences what the novelist Stendhal, in his treatise “On Love,” calls “crystallization”: No aspect of Odette now seems less than utterly, completely enchanting. “He didn’t contradict her vulgar ideas, or the bad taste that she showed in everything, and which, indeed, he loved as he loved everything about her.”

But one evening over dinner Swann detects a knowing glance passing between Odette and another Verdurin guest, the Comte de Forcheville. From then on, he starts to wonder about those occasions when this Botticelli-like beauty sent him home early because of tiredness. Was she secretly expecting another visitor later on? Could she be deceiving him with Forcheville or other men? Or, as an anonymous letter insinuates, even with women?

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Among the pleasures in reading Proust is his constant recourse to unexpected similes, such as his likening jealousy to “an octopus stretching out first one, then a second, then a third tentacle” as it chokes the sufferer. In vain Swann tries to account for Odette’s movements at all times of the day and night. Suspicions increasingly torment him. Odette, though, soon recognizes that Swann is hooked, gladly accepts his gifts, and more and more treats him as chattel. Before long, the once-debonair man of fashion feels grateful for the least crumb of affection.

Let me pause there. I’ve skipped over many details and there’s much more to come, but the real gift of “Swann in Love” isn’t its plot so much as its rapturous intensity and the wholly immersive experience of inhabiting Swann’s consciousness. Yearning, possessiveness, jealousy, deception, self-torture, the impossibility of truly knowing another person — these turn out to be the unhappy and recurrent elements of Proustian love.

Still, in the midst of his misery, Swann happens to attend a grand soiree, where his creator — who is also a great comic novelist — presents an extended satirical tableau of Parisian high society. Then, just as he’s about to leave the party, Swann unexpectedly hears the hired musicians play Vinteuil’s sonata and this time recognizes that “the feelings Odette had had for him would never return, and that his hopes of happiness would not be realized.”

Yet the story of Charles Swann and Odette de Crécy is nowhere near over. However, you’ll need to read not just “Swann in Love” but the rest of “In Search of Lost Time” to learn what happens to this ill-matched couple. You’ll be surprised.

Swann in Love

By Marcel Proust, translated by Lucy Raitz

Pushkin Press. 256 pp. $24

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